Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Said American Dream - by Jenny Talia

ECR humorously tasked me to write about The American Dream, or better stated, my perspective on The Said American Dream.

First, let's get a generally proposed definition for the subject matter at hand.

Wikipedia (the source for all things accurate) defines The American Dream as a subjective term usually implying a successful and satisfying life. This term usually implies financial security and material comfort, but can also imply a dream of fame, exceeding social, ethnic, or class boundaries, or simply living a fulfilling life. Perceptions of the American dream are usually framed in terms of American capitalism, its associated meritocracy, and the freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Bill of Rights.

The term is not easily defined, and has subjective meaning to many who claim it. The American Dream is often associated with
immigration, as the dream of religious freedom, economic prosperity, and meritocracy has historically driven immigrants to the United States. The term is used by many modern Americans to signify success in life as a result of hard work (as in, "living [or pursuing] the American Dream").

Hmmm. I guess I can get behind the part about living a fulfilling life - but is my life truly fulfilled if yours is not? Is it ok that I am warm if it means you are cold? Fame and fortune, well, that makes me sit up a little straighter and start to itch. Then I get all prickly towards the parts describing capitalism and then laugh out loud when I read the part about it involving meritocracy, better known as a system of government or other organization based on demonstrated ability (merit) and talent rather than by wealth, family connections (nepotism), class privilege, cronyism or other historical determinants of social position and political power.

Ahem. If meritocracy is an actual part of The Existing American Dream, then I can shit tiny gold men and make them do my laundry.

PS. I do my own laundry.

(I shouldn't be so cynical. We are conditioned to embrace the ideals of meritocracy, and the practice certainly does exist, but concerning leadership in particular - status is exponentially easier to achieve through wealth, nepotism, class/race privilege, & cronyism than through a merit-based ascension through the establishment's rank & file. For every Frederick Douglas, there are 1000 George Bushes.)

I guess I'd prefer to re-define what we typically think of as the American Dream as Global Human Potential through Social Justice.

(Wiki-people) Social justice refers to conceptions of justice applied to an entire society. It is based on the idea of a just society, which gives individuals and groups fair treatment and a just share of the benefits of society.
Social justice is both a
philosophical problem and an important issue in politics. It can be argued that everyone wishes to live in a just society, but different political ideologies have different conceptions of what a 'just society' actually is. The term "social justice" itself tends to be used by those ideologies who believe that present day society is highly unjust - and these are usually left-wing ideologies, advocating a more extensive use of democracy and income redistribution, a more egalitarian society and either a mixed economy or a non-market-based economic model.

Social justice is also a concept that some use to describe the movement towards a socially just world. In this context, social justice is based on the concepts of
human rights and equality. So a very broad definition of social justice is that "social justice reflects the way in which human rights are manifested in the everyday lives of people at every level of society" It can be further defined as working towards the realization of a world where all members of a society, regardless of background, have basic human rights and an equal opportunity to access the benefits of their society.


Now what does this all mean to me? I think people like C come to our country because we have acquired more of the world's resources, therefore making it easier to feed and clothe your family, and keep them alive than in many other parts of the world. But The Said American Dream comes on the backs of others. Unfair trade agreements, destabilization of other economies, and the ever loving desire to make a buck has crippled the world's (and our) economy. The Said American Dream lives on the backs of our domestic brothers and sisters - one in five children live below the poverty line in the US. Millions have no health insurance. There is not a city in the nation where minimum wage equates market rate rental housing. Tens of thousands of children go to bed hungry. In my county alone, there are 20,000 people who are currently unhoused. The average age of a homeless person is nine years old.

I have met hundreds of homeless or at risk of homelessness families who pursue the above with a vigor that startles me. They believe that with hard work, one can have anything. I think it is an honorable dream, and one that many of us have been fortunate enough to experience ourselves to varying degrees. But did it all come to us via our hard work alone? It didn't for me - money, stability and ethnicity all played a role.

ECR - Obviously this is somewhat sardonic and a bit scattered. In fact, I'd give myself a C-, or better, fail me for plagarism. I'll let you decide. Others, please feel free to disagree. That whole it's a free country thing does come in handy.

But if the argument is at least we aren't as bad as some other countries, I won't buy it. Because as the country with the most resources and wealth, we have the obligation and responsibility to be an example to others. To use our power for good. To stand up taller. To do the right thing. It doesn't matter if others are mucking it up worse.

So, in turn, ECR, and others - what is your perspective of the American Dream?


Anonymous said...

First, I think when you are writing on your own blog you can take the written test "Pass/Fail".

Second, I am the child of an immigrant who has placed this country on a pedestal you would not believe. So I am somewhat brainwashed. But the fact of the matter is, even my mom had resources. She was not a member of an indigenous tribe in Ecuador - she was from a family with highly educated members who came here first and sponsored her.

But I think the "grain" of the American dream is still intact - some things are achievable here through hard work alone, through determination and grit. My mother would not have been allowed to finish high school and work at a job outside her home in her country in 1965. She came here and was poor, but she felt her destiny was now in her own hands. And maybe that is all it takes -maybe it is a placebo effect, but it worked for her. And she taught me to be thankful every day for what I did have, even if I was bombarded with messages that told me I needed more, more, more!

As far as the good ole' U.S of A. is concerned, I still love it (current leadership aside). Even if I didn't live here I would pine for it. We are spoiled, spoiled people that live here, yet many are raised to believe it is "owed" to them -all the toys, cars, games, etc.

When you are raised to believe that life should be a never-ending stream of shiny, new things, you are not stopping to think about the 20,000 people in your county who don't have shelter. You are too worried about where your next PlayStation is coming from. Is that the fault of this country or the people that live here and are "free" to pursue the religion of consumerism?

The only way this country will wake up is if their freedom to buy something was threatened. I believe that firmly.

kristen said...

I don't know how much more it can be mucked up, considering our current administration and war. We have so much to be grateful for and yet, it's the desire for material things, MORE THINGS that has skewed perspective. I'm an offender, no fingers being pointed....but I do believe that we're afforded many more oppty. here than in most countries and I think it's taken for granted.

KC said...

To me, my parents lived the American Dream. My mom came to this country with one suitcase holding all of her posessions, about $50 in cash and a wedding dress. She didn't speak a word of English. My parents got married in the basement of their graduate school building with streamers on the chalkboards and paper wedding bells.

They worked hard. Sometimes in jobs they didn't like. They dealt with racism, much more than I did. They saved. They moved up. They sent me and my brother through universities and graduate schools, the quality of these unsurpassed in the world.

For many, America is the land of true opportunity, depite its flaws, it still offers hope of a better life for oneself and for one's children. Merit-based scholarships and need-blind admissions help equalize the playing field.

I think your American dream is the ideal dream many of us who have grown up here hope for this country. But can the traditional American Dream coexist with the ideal?

Mrs. Chicky said...

My version of the American Dream is the right to live free. Unfortunately, living free costs a lot and you can't put it all on a credit card.

Anonymous said...

Did you see that episode of Oprah when Will Smith was promoting his new film..'The Pursuit of Happiness.' It is based on a true rags to riches story and is very touching.

However it just really struck me when Will and Oprah went on and on about how 'only in America' can you have a story like that.

They were looking at the upside...that the guy made it and was financially successful and now makes a lot of money and helps others. Cool.

But how about 'only in America' would you have a father and son living on the streets. Should he not have been in that situation in the first place?

I get the idea that people do have the chance to the live the 'dream'...but at what cost?

I really dislike the hidden implication behind it, which is 'every man for himself.'

I do think the world view of the US is finally tarnishing and people are seeing it for what it is...a corporate driven and controlled nation with a lot of bling to show off to everyone else who is great at judging the world for it's faults...while ignoring it's own.

Thailand Gal said...

Well, I will try to add my perspective but it might hurt my hands. I've been applauding you so hard, they're raw :)

And I'm glad for ECR asking the question. Yesterday, I said that I couldn't fit my thoughts into your comment section. There were too many. Basically, I can not feel particularly good about the exploitation of C - which is ultimately how I believe it will turn out. While I understand his desire for comfort for his family, that is not the highest value. I hope he doesn't buy the ticket.

Anyone who has read my site has probably figured out by now that I am an old-fashioned democratic socialist. I don't believe this country is the best in the world, nor do I believe it is the worst. I do believe it is a bully nation and the majority of its wealth comes from the exploitation of labor and resources in the Third World.

I don't believe in an American Dream. I believe in a Global Dream ~ and it includes justice, jobs, housing, food and medical care for all.

Stepping down from my soap box, offering all a gentle virtual wai.



Anonymous said...

OH, Jen....where to begin. My fingers can't move fast enough to keep up with my brain.....
I agree that the American Dream has come at a heavy price to so many - starting with the Indians. We took from them, to give to ourselves.
I'm convinced the "American Dream" was/is an idea thought up and delivered to society by a 5 and dime. It's something that makes people feel successful, makes them feel accomplished. Makes them feel 'free'.
I have to question the American dream, especially in the 40's & 50's for a few reasons. How was our country booming when we kicked so many women out of the work force, people were eating up their Levittown homes when all of Europe and Asia were devastated by bombs of our deployment? Is that the American Dream? I guess if it means we do stand taller by standing on the backs of every minority group, then sure - we're living it.
The thing is, if we really are about humintarian efforts why are we not sending troops or UN peacekeepers to Africa? Because the means do not justify the ends. Our government thinks there is nothing to be gained there (aka oil).
We do have so much. We have so many resources, we have technology. We are said to be the richest country in the world. Yet our education system sucks, we cannot properly take care of our own in need. But yet for all of those resources, it seems that we produce the most ignorant (and I mean that in the actual definition of the word) society.
And as you've touched on, there are so many hungry, starving, sick people in our own country. What would their response be to living the American Dream? This idea of working and working, to only feel like a hamster in one of those stupid excercise wheels....?
Like Karl Marx said that "religion is the opiate of the masses" I believe the idea of the American Dream is the opiate to our masses. That is my take, in a nutshell. I guess I could have just come out and said that without typing for an hour :)

Anonymous said...

Well done, Miss Talia :) As your quotes were all properly cited, you are in no danger of failing on account of plaigarism. I'm so glad you tackled the subject and gave us all something to think about.

As for my own opinion, I will need to request an extension. I'll post it on my own blog soon.

Time for recess.

Anonymous said...

You have provided a very thoughtful perspective in response to ECR's request.

I have mixed feelings about the American Dream. Even though I'm living in the UK right now, I still believe that the US provides more opportunities for more people than most other countries. People come to the US because of the dream: that your hard work will allow you to pursue what makes you happy.

Yes, I think there are a lot of things that need to be re-addressed and fixed (a lot!) in the US, and I think far too many people fall through the cracks and don't get the a fair shake at opportunities many of us take/took for granted growing up. And I am still disgusted about our healthcare system. But, with that being said, I do think we get a lot of things right. We just need to find a better balance.

ecm said...

My favorite line in this is "For every Frederick Douglas there are 1000 George Bushes" That seems like a perfect title for an essay. And your words are well-said. Great topic.

Deezee said...

as the country with the most resources and wealth, we have the obligation and responsibility to be an example to others


To me the American Dream would be each of us having the opportunity to live authentically (whatever that means for each of us, including the opportunity to discover what that means for each of us) without trampling others. A tall order? You bet.

Anonymous said...

As a veteran of Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq...over these last few months...I've wondered to myself, "Is it possible to reduce the amount of hatred and violence in our world?"

Last week, before going to sleep, I began asking myself a lot of WHAT IF questions.

The central theme behind my thoughts are neither anti-war or pro-religion. My words are not meant to inspire scenes of flag-burning or political protest signs. Sadly, I realize that sometimes a lasting Peace means war.

However, unless someone and everyone start talking about the idea of Peace...

Even if it's just for two short minutes...

It's possible that an unstoppable firestorm of hatred may one day burn its way across our entire planet.

Instead of pointing out those differences which separate mankind...

It's my hope that the humanity within all of us will somehow prevail...


See link:

If you write a passage about what the PEACE means to you, I'll build a simple BLOG page featuring your words and original images…

Momish said...

I cannot fully answer this, but will give you my gut reaction to your post. I think it can be broken down by the words (typical of a language freak, huh?). In many ways, I have lived this so called American Dream, by rising above the ranks of poverty, getting myself an education and finding a job, which truly satisfies me.

The "dream" part is the subjective. I dreamt of no longer being so poor, of being able to contribute to a conversation previously above my knowledge, of getting up everyday and doing a job I like, one that challenges me and rewards me, yet for which I am paid enough to live a good life. But, this may not be someone else's dream. Some may have more simplistic dreams, like only wanting the freedom to practice their religion without persecution. Some may have more complex dreams, like wanting to perfect and art and be recognized for all generations to come. Some may have more noble dreams, like curing a disease. Each person’s dream is different.

As for the “American” part? That is the part I think is objective. That part says, no matter who you are, you have the right to your dream. Your dream is valid. Your dream is possible. Your dream is not out of the realms of reality. There are not many other countries which offer this same luxury to dream, and yet know it can be more than just a dream.

Penny said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

As an Australian who lived in NYC for 7 years, I have to say that I found the American dream (as in "anything is possible if you work hard enough") alive and well. In fact, it seemed to me that often it was the people who had the least, who seemed to believe in it the most.

Anonymous said...

"In fact, it seemed to me that often it was the people who had the least, who seemed to believe in it the most."


Anonymous said...

Jen. Wooden rings of commitment aside, will you please marry me?

I love this post a lot, lot, lot partly because it reaffirms for me what the blogosphere can do: carve out a space for people to articulate themselves well about any old subject but particularly about non-mainstream political and ideological beliefs.

I agree with everything you have said here but I was particularly cheering when you discussed global economics because for me, that is the real kicker with the American dream (and I mean North American--I don't want anyone to think that this Canadian is in her frosty glass house throwing stones). You are right to remind people that the continued escalation of the values that prop up the American dream can now only move forward in a way that cripples so many other economies worldwide. I want the best for my daughter but I hate that I have few options but to buy her clothes and toys that were likely made by children who will have no childhood of their own. This is simply WRONG.

Capitalism is all fine and dandy when it is in check, but in the last 50 years it has gone increasingly unchecked as the first world pushes relentlessly to maximize profits and provide its citizens (at least the middle and upper classes) with as much disposable income as possible. This means we dispose of that income by buying stuff we don't need and then we begin to think we are entitled to ever more stuff. It is a viscous circle and so ingrained in our culture that it is hard to step back and make a conscious decision to scale down.

I love your blog b/c you are one of the voices out there who so beautifully and gracefully says, "wait a minute. Is this really the best way?" Thank you and the marriage proposal still stands.

jen said...


Since I'm not legally married, and we are both chicks and aren't allowed to legally marry anyways, no laws would be broken on your end either so the answer is, of course, yes.

I'll marry you.

Anonymous said...

We can legally marry where I live... (yes, yes, except for the bigamy bit on my end).

ecdysis70 said...

when I went to berlin in the mid 90s, i was surprised at how they handled this kind of population. If they don't have homes for them they put them all in hotels. It was illegal to be homeless!
There were people with alcohol and drug problems in Berlin, but they didn't have to be homeless. It seemed so much more humane.

Kira said...

hear hear.